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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

In the spirit of God

A friend recently forwarded me a copy of Pope Francis' message for the World Day of Peace 2015 entitled "No longer slaves, but brothers and sisters," released by the Vatican on 8 December 2014. The full text can be found at the following address: http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/messages/peace/documents/papa-francesco_20141208_messaggio-xlviii-giornata-mondiale-pace-2015.html

As I am not a Roman Catholic, one might well wonder why I would reference a document penned by the leader of that organization. I reference it here because I was frankly impressed by the very Christian nature and Godly spirit of the message. Francis uses Paul's letter to Philemon as his central text, but he draws his theme from a Biblical narrative that stretches back to the book of Genesis. In short, his message is about the celebration of our common humanity and conducting our lives in a way that demonstrates our care and compassion for each other and rejects indifference or self-interest as the impetus for our actions.

Francis' message is mainly concerned with "the great suffering caused by human agency." He speaks of "the negative reality of sin, which often disrupts human fraternity and constantly disfigures the beauty and nobility of our being brothers and sisters in the one human family." According to Francis, this gives rise to a "culture of enslavement" that produces alienation, mistreatment, violations of personal dignity and rights and the institutionalization of inequality.

He points out that slavery manifests itself in many different forms in the modern world. In fact, Francis defines slavery simply as being the deprivation of freedom and the imposition of intolerable living conditions on those who have been so deprived. The Pope sees the institution of slavery in things like the exploitation of workers, prostitution and sexual exploitation, forced marriages, addiction to and trafficking in drugs, people being forced to serve in militias and armies, immigrants being forced to live in the shadows and the kidnapping and holding of hostages by terrorist groups around the world.

Francis sees these things as being the result of us objectifying our fellow man. He points out that the rejection of another person's humanity and our dismissal of the fact that they (like us) were made in the image of God leads to the treatment of our fellow man as a "means to an end." Among the other causes for slavery, the Pope mentions "poverty, underdevelopment and exclusion, especially when combined with a lack of access to education or scarce, even non-existent, employment opportunities."

Finally, Francis points out that we must all share a commitment to end slavery. He underscores the fact that the perpetuation of the institution requires the complicity of everyone. Francis says that states have a responsibility to make sure that their laws protect the dignity of their citizens. The Pope also insists that they are obligated to cooperate with each other in the fight against human trafficking. He continues, "Businesses have a duty to ensure dignified working conditions and adequate salaries for their employees." Finally, Francis points out that “purchasing is always a moral – and not simply an economic – act." In other words, we as consumers have an obligation to know where, how and by whom the products we buy were manufactured.

In this connection, we can see why Francis found Paul's letter to Philemon so compelling. Writing to Philemon about his former slave Onesimus, Paul informed his friend that Onesimus had been converted to Christianity while he was away from his master. He continued: "He is no longer like a slave to you. He is more than a slave, for he is a beloved brother, especially to me. Now he will mean much more to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord." (Philemon 16) Christ had made master and slave brothers. He had restored the fraternal bond that was sundered by Cain when he killed his brother Abel. (Genesis 4) In this, Francis reminds us that we are our brother's keeper - that we all have a responsibility to care for and cherish each other.

Such a message seems to me to be very consistent with a God who is supposed to be the epitome of love. It also appears to me to be in harmony with Christ's instruction to love your brother as yourself. In short, I find myself in complete agreement with Pope Francis on this one! What do you think?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

God and Christmas

There is an extreme element within the Christian community that shuns everything related to Christmas. They claim that the holiday is entirely pagan in origin (see my previous posts about God and paganism to refute this). These folks go on to say that we are not instructed to celebrate the events of Christ's birth, and that Christians were originally commanded to focus on his death. Thus, they assert that anyone who seeks to celebrate the story of Christ's nativity is either deceived or in direct rebellion against God's will. Is that true? Does God hate Christmas?

The Bible celebrates the events surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ in a number of passages. Let's take just a moment to underscore the fact that these scriptures are an integral part of the Judeo-Christian canon.

"Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel." (Isaiah 7:14)

"For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even forever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this." (Isaiah 9:6-7)

"But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting." (Micah 5:2)

"Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privily. But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins. Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us." (Matthew 1:18-23)

"Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him...And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh." (Matthew 2:1-11)

"And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be. And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favor with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there shall be no end." (Luke 1:26-33)

"And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed...And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angels said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men." (Luke 2:1-14)

Now that is an impressive testimony of Scripture concerning Christ's nativity - his advent or first coming to this earth. Are these scriptures to be dismissed or ignored? Are these verses part of the canon or not? And, if they are, aren't we as Christians obligated to celebrate them in the same fashion that we celebrate the other scriptures?

It is ironic to me that many of the folks who seek to dismiss Christmas as pagan exult in their observance of the festivals outlined in the twenty-third chapter of Leviticus. By their own admission, they say that these festivals point to the life and work of Jesus Christ and God's plan of salvation for mankind. In this connection, they say that the Feast of Trumpets portrays the coming of Christ. To be sure, most of the time they stress the Second Advent of the Messiah; but, if you press them on the subject, they will acknowledge that this holy day probably covers his First Advent as well. Hence, even many of the folks who have rejected Christmas as pagan have unwittingly celebrated the birth of their Savior!

Does the date make any difference? Scripture does not give the date of Christ's birth (he may or may not have been born on the day that is purported to symbolize that event). In Great Britain, the queen's birthday is celebrated by her subjects in June. Her actual birthday, however, is in April. The reasoning is that it is warmer in June and thus more convenient for her subjects to celebrate the event. Likewise, in the United States, George Washington's actual birthday was on the 22 of February; but it is now officially celebrated as part of President's Day on the third Monday in February (to give folks who observe it a long weekend). President's Day had the added advantage of incorporating separate observances of Abraham Lincoln's birthday (also occurring in February) into a single holiday (thus employers didn't have to give their workers two days off in one month). Finally, just for the record, there is not a single verse in Scripture that prohibits the observance of birthdays.

In conclusion, I have to ask: What is wrong with celebrating what all Christians should regard as one of the most important events in human history? What is wrong with celebrating these Scriptures and the events that they explain? We aren't told to celebrate a day of Thanksgiving either - Does that make it wrong that we do? When you put it that way, such a notion sounds a little ridiculous doesn't it?

Thus, as someone who used to buy this hogwash about no Christmas, it gives me great pleasure to wish all of my Christian readers a very Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 13, 2014

God and our idols

Collectively and individually, we often attempt to create the God we want to worship. We construct an image in our minds of what we think God looks like, and we attribute to "Him" the personality traits that seem most appropriate to us. We do this in 2014, and the people of ancient Egypt and Babylon did it in times past. Moreover, it is clear that some of the people who contributed to the Judeo-Christian canon did the same thing. It is, therefore, the epitome of arrogance to suggest that the "Christian" conception of God (as if you could actually get Catholics, Protestants, Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses to agree on such a thing) is the true image of the Supreme God; or that other conceptions are somehow inferior to the one put forward by Christians.

"How can you say such a thing?" some of my Fundamentalist friends will ask. "Read your Bible!" is my answer. There are numerous scriptures that portray God as an angry, hateful, impatient, vindictive and cruel personage. There are many scriptures that have God zapping people in an angry outburst. Other scriptures suggest God's approval of genocide or have "Him" ordering "His" people to exterminate their enemies. In many of these scriptures, even babies and little children are not spared from God's wrath. It's like "Oh boy, now you've really pissed me off!"

Is God that much like us? Does "He" lose his temper and hold grudges like we do? Does God lash out at people who anger him? What about the scriptures who portray God as the epitome of love? What about those scriptures that attribute endless patience, compassion and mercy to "Him?" Aren't scriptures that portray God as being better than us more believable than those that identify "Him" with our basest tendencies?

Isaiah wrote: "To whom can you compare God? What image can you find to resemble him? Can he be compared to an idol formed in a mold, overlaid with gold, and decorated with silver chains?" (Isaiah 40:18-19) And, "'To whom will you compare me? Who is my equal?' asks the Holy One. Look up into the heavens. Who created all the stars? He brings them out like an army, one after another, calling each by its name. Because of his great power and incomparable strength, not a single one is missing." (verses 25-26) That's God on a cosmic level - not some petty tyrant ready to zap an errant human at a moment's whim! (That sounds more in line with the Greeks' conception of Zeus and his lightning bolts than it does with a God that would be worthy of everyone's worship)

Indeed, we could argue with some justification that one of the central themes of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures is the admonition that all of us should strive to be more like God. In this respect, it might be instructive to consider the aims of other religious faiths to see if they contradict or comport with such an objective before we dismiss them or declare them to be in error. As an example, I found this statement at http://www.aboutbuddhism.org/what-is-buddhism.htm/ under the heading "What is Buddhism?": "Buddha explained that all our problems and suffering arise from confused and negative states of mind, and that all our happiness and good fortune arise from peaceful and positive states of mind. He taught methods for gradually overcoming our negative minds such as anger, jealousy and ignorance, and developing our positive minds such as love, compassion and wisdom. Through this we will come to experience lasting peace and happiness. These methods work for anyone, in any country, in any age. Once we have gained experience of them for ourselves we can pass them on to others so they too can enjoy the same benefits."

Maybe we should take a moment to evaluate our own conception of God. What does your idol look like? When you think of God, do you imagine something or someone that transcends yourself and the world around you? Or do you thing of someone who looks, thinks and acts like you? And, when you calmly consider such questions in this fashion, which version of God seems more plausible or probable to you?

Friday, December 12, 2014

One Size Fits All

Experience and/or common sense has taught most of us to be wary of purchasing garments that make the "one size fits all" claim. We understand that there is so much variability relative to the height, width and weight of individuals that such a claim is rendered almost impossible. As a consequence, most of us go to the clothing store with our sizes/dimensions in hand to avoid ending up with clothing that does not fit. Many of us even take the added precaution of trying on the clothing before we purchase it (realizing that there is some variability extant among the way that the manufacturers of our clothing size their garments).

However, when it comes to the subject of religious beliefs, many of us seem to be much more amenable to the claim that "one size fits all." Moreover, among the religious folks of the world, Christians appear to be especially susceptible to this phenomenon. Take a moment to consider just a few of the groups that claim to be THE ONE size that is right for everyone on this planet: Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Latter Day Saints, Jehovah's Witnesses, Church of Christ, Seventh-Day Adventists and most of the descendants of the now defunct Worldwide Church of God (which this writer belonged to at one time).

For those of us who used to be affiliated with one of the groups who have made such a claim, we have tended to look back at them from the perspective of their exclusion of outsiders (which I'm not dismissing as unimportant). However, each and every one of those groups looks at themselves as THE ANSWER, or at least being in possession of THE ANSWER. In other words, they claim to have the ability to accommodate the spiritual needs of everyone on this planet (that is, everyone who wants to be saved). And, when we look at it from their own perspective, it is then that it becomes crystal clear just how absurd such a claim really is! Aren't they really saying that you have to squeeze you into the garment that we've made for everyone (you have to conform to our garment)?

If one size was truly meant to fit all, then why has God created or allowed (depending on your perspective) so much variability in the world? Think about it. If we were to exclude every other consideration and only focus on the different ways that people learn/assimilate/process information, we could easily be overwhelmed by the complexity of the subject before us. Nevertheless, we all understand that this isn't the only factor we would have to consider in evaluating this question of the greater variability. We must also take into account the variability that exists in the realms of ideas, philosophies, psychology, science in general, historical experience, morality, writings/Scriptures, etc. (In short, it makes the variability that exists within height, width and weight seem insignificant by comparison).

One size fits all? It doesn't make sense to me. What do you think?

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

God and Evangelical Eschatology

When we look back at the history of Christianity, it seems to me that each generation of Christians has contained a large number of people who believed that they were living in the last days of this world. Indeed, this phenomenon is apparent even in the generation of people who lived and wrote about the events of the New Testament. Luke tells us that Christ had to tell his followers a story "to correct the impression that the kingdom of God would begin right away." (Luke 19:11, NLT) Likewise, Paul wrote the Romans: "This is all the more urgent, for you know how late it is; time is running out. Wake up, for our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is almost gone; the day of salvation will soon be here." (Romans 13:11-12) In short, most Christians have believed that they were living in the last days since the dawn of the religion. In this connection, it is interesting to consider how this has impacted Christians' perception of and participation in the world in which they live.

I noticed this morning that Salon has published an article by Daniel Silliman (which originally appeared on Religion Dispatches) entitled "Why millions of Christian evangelicals oppose Obamacare and civil rights." (http://www.salon.com) In the article, Mr. Silliman interviews Professor Matthew Avery Sutton about his thesis that the political beliefs and activities of American Evangelical Christians have been largely shaped by their apocalypticism. Professor Sutton summarizes the reasons for his interest in the subject in these terms: "My argument in a nutshell is that the apocalyptic theology that developed in the 1880s and 1890s led radical evangelicals to the conclusion that all nations are going to concede their power in the End Times to a totalitarian political leader who is going to be the Antichrist. If you believe you’re living in the last days and you believe you’re moving towards that event, you’re going to be very suspicious and skeptical of anything that seems to undermine individual rights and individual liberties, and anything that is going to give more power to the state."

Although I'm not sure that I agree with the professor's assertion that this belief is more important than the evangelical's view of Scripture, his point about its centrality to a proper understanding of Evangelical Christian behavior is well taken. He asserts: "The one thing that affects how they live their daily lives is that they believe we are moving towards the End Times, the rise of the Antichrist, towards a great tribulation and a horrific human holocaust." He continues: "This is significant because to believe the world is rapidly moving to its end effects how you vote, how you’re going to structure your education, how you understand the economy, how you’re going to treat global events, how you’re going to look at organizations like the United Nations."

In response to Mr. Silliman's questions, the professor skillfully rebuffs any notions that such an outlook would produce indifference in its adherents. He points out that the history of Evangelical Christianity in this country, from Moody to Graham to Falwell, is one of intense involvement and activity within the culture of America. He explains this apparent contradiction by pointing to Christ's parable of the talents. Sutton concludes: "For fundamentalists and evangelicals, the point here is that God has given them talents. He’s gone away, he’s coming back, he’s coming back soon, and he’s going to ask what you’ve done with your talents. Jesus ended the parable by instructing the disciples to “occupy” until I come. And that’s what fundamentalists and evangelicals have done."

The article then examines how this dynamic has been interpreted differently by White and Black Evangelicals. While many White Evangelicals have focused on issues like abortion and same-sex relationships, he points out that Blacks focused on the abuses that they were suffering at the hands of state governments as evidence that they were living in the end times. For them, he said, "There was a sense in which Jesus’s return was the coming of a black liberator." Among White Evangelicals, what they saw as the lawlessness of the Civil Rights movement provided an end-time rationale for opposing it.

The article concludes with this assessment of Evangelical apocalypticism: "It’s a genius theology, because it allows people to look at very diverse, very troubling, very dark contemporary events and put them in a context; to say, 'I know why this is happening, and it’s going to turn out OK. We are going to be OK.' It gives them peace, comfort and hope in a world that often offers none of those things." I'm all for giving people comfort and hope, but I'm also concerned about the way that this belief has shaped the political opinions and activities of its adherents in the meantime.

It is also important to remind ourselves that we are talking about a portion (albeit a sizable one) of those who profess to be Christians - not everyone's eschatology looks the same. Even so, it seems to me that all Christians could benefit from the teachings of our founder on this topic. I seem to recall Christ saying something about focusing on today and not worrying about tomorrow. (Matthew 6:34) To be sure, he also instructed his followers to watch (Matthew 24:42), but wasn't that followed by an instruction to be living one's life in accordance with God's principles? (notice verses 45-51) In other words, no panic - nothing special - just be living the life that God wants you to live and everything will happen in God's time. Maybe that would be a more productive and positive preoccupation for Evangelical Christians in America? What do you think?

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

God and the Feast of Dedication

For many Christians, the exclusion of the books of I and II Maccabees from the Canon has left them with an imperfect understanding of the period between the Old and New Testaments and the events just prior to Christ's birth. Add to this the fact that many of them have never been exposed to the writings of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus and it is no wonder that many of them have been bewildered by the outlines of the world into which Christ was born. One of the items that has perplexed a number of Christians is a reference within the Gospel According to John that describes Jesus keeping the Feast of Dedication. (John 10:22)

Since the only exposure that many Christians have had to the Feast of Dedication has been through television wishes of "Happy Hanukkah" to Jewish viewers, I thought that it would be helpful to extract some quotes from the First Book of Maccabees to help familiarize them with the subject.

From the First Chapter, we read:
1 And it happened, after that Alexander son of Philip, the Macedonian, who came out of the land of Chettiim, had smitten Darius king of the Persians and Medes, that he reigned in his stead, the first over Greece,
2 And made many wars, and won many strong holds, and slew the kings of the earth,
3 And went through to the ends of the earth, and took spoils of many nations, insomuch that the earth was quiet before him; whereupon he was exalted and his heart was lifted up.
4 And he gathered a mighty strong host and ruled over countries, and nations, and kings, who became tributaries unto him.
5 And after these things he fell sick, and perceived that he should die.
6 Wherefore he called his servants, such as were honorable, and had been brought up with him from his youth, and parted his kingdom among them, while he was yet alive.
7 So Alexander reigned twelve years, and then died.
8 And his servants bare rule every one in his place.
9 And after his death they all put crowns upon themselves; so did their sons after them many years: and evils were multiplied in the earth.
10 And there came out of them a wicked root Antiochus surnamed Epiphanes, son of Antiochus the king, who had been an hostage at Rome, and he reigned in the hundred and thirty and seventh year of the kingdom of the Greeks.

20 And after that Antiochus had smitten Egypt, he returned again in the hundred forty and third year, and went up against Israel and Jerusalem with a great multitude,
21 And entered proudly into the sanctuary, and took away the golden altar, and the candlestick of light, and all the vessels thereof,
22 And the table of the shewbread, and the pouring vessels, and the vials. and the censers of gold, and the veil, and the crown, and the golden ornaments that were before the temple, all which he pulled off.
23 He took also the silver and the gold, and the precious vessels: also he took the hidden treasures which he found.
24 And when he had taken all away, he went into his own land, having made a great massacre, and spoken very proudly.

41 Moreover king Antiochus wrote to his whole kingdom, that all should be one people,
42 And every one should leave his laws: so all the heathen agreed according to the commandment of the king.
43 Yea, many also of the Israelites consented to his religion, and sacrificed unto idols, and profaned the sabbath.
44 For the king had sent letters by messengers unto Jerusalem and the cities of Juda that they should follow the strange laws of the land,
45 And forbid burnt offerings, and sacrifice, and drink offerings, in the temple; and that they should profane the sabbaths and festival days:
46 And pollute the sanctuary and holy people:
47 Set up altars, and groves, and chapels of idols, and sacrifice swine's flesh, and unclean beasts:
48 That they should also leave their children uncircumcised, and make their souls abominable with all manner of uncleanness and profanation:
49 To the end they might forget the law, and change all the ordinances.
50 And whosoever would not do according to the commandment of the king, he said, he should die.

54 Now the fifteenth day of the month Casleu, in the hundred forty and fifth year, they set up the abomination of desolation upon the altar, and builded idol altars throughout the cities of Juda on every side;

After these events, the verses that follow tell the story of how a man named Mattathias and his five sons resisted the efforts of Antiochus Epiphanes to destroy Judaism. In fact, Judas Maccabeus (one of Mattathias' sons) was later able to defeat Antiochus in battle and liberate Jerusalem. (I Maccabees 2,3 and 4)

As a consequence, in the Fourth Chapter, we read:
36 Then said Judas and his brethren, Behold, our enemies are discomfited: let us go up to cleanse and dedicate the sanctuary.
37 Upon this all the host assembled themselves together, and went up into mount Sion.
38 And when they saw the sanctuary desolate, and the altar profaned, and the gates burned up, and shrubs growing in the courts as in a forest, or in one of the mountains, yea, and the priests' chambers pulled down;
39 They rent their clothes, and made great lamentation, and cast ashes upon their heads,
40 And fell down flat to the ground upon their faces, and blew an alarm with the trumpets, and cried toward heaven.
41 Then Judas appointed certain men to fight against those that were in the fortress, until he had cleansed the sanctuary.
42 So he chose priests of blameless conversation, such as had pleasure in the law:
43 Who cleansed the sanctuary, and bare out the defiled stones into an unclean place.
44 And when as they consulted what to do with the altar of burnt offerings, which was profaned;
45 They thought it best to pull it down, lest it should be a reproach to them, because the heathen had defiled it: wherefore they pulled it down,
46 And laid up the stones in the mountain of the temple in a convenient place, until there should come a prophet to shew what should be done with them.
47 Then they took whole stones according to the law, and built a new altar according to the former;
48 And made up the sanctuary, and the things that were within the temple, and hallowed the courts.
49 They made also new holy vessels, and into the temple they brought the candlestick, and the altar of burnt offerings, and of incense, and the table.
50 And upon the altar they burned incense, and the lamps that were upon the candlestick they lighted, that they might give light in the temple.
51 Furthermore they set the loaves upon the table, and spread out the veils, and finished all the works which they had begun to make.
52 Now on the five and twentieth day of the ninth month, which is called the month Casleu, in the hundred forty and eighth year, they rose up betimes in the morning,
53 And offered sacrifice according to the law upon the new altar of burnt offerings, which they had made.
54 Look, at what time and what day the heathen had profaned it, even in that was it dedicated with songs, and citherns, and harps, and cymbals.
55 Then all the people fell upon their faces, worshipping and praising the God of heaven, who had given them good success.
56 And so they kept the dedication of the altar eight days and offered burnt offerings with gladness, and sacrificed the sacrifice of deliverance and praise.
57 They decked also the forefront of the temple with crowns of gold, and with shields; and the gates and the chambers they renewed, and hanged doors upon them.
58 Thus was there very great gladness among the people, for that the reproach of the heathen was put away.
59 Moreover Judas and his brethren with the whole congregation of Israel ordained, that the days of the dedication of the altar should be kept in their season from year to year by the space of eight days, from the five and twentieth day of the month Casleu, with mirth and gladness.

**All of these excerpts found at http://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org**

Notice that these writings also explain much of the material found in the book of Daniel. In a previous post, I talked about how Alexander the Great and the generals who followed him were the very people being depicted by some of the elaborate symbolism of that book. The absence of this perspective has led many prophecy buffs into wild speculations about what the "abomination of desolation" might be; but an understanding of the historical context of these things quickly brings us back down to earth.

According to Tracey Rich at Judaism 101, the designation of eight days for the festival was the result of a Divine miracle. We read there: "According to tradition as recorded in the Talmud, at the time of the rededication, there was very little oil left that had not been defiled by the Greeks. Oil was needed for the menorah (candelabrum) in the Temple, which was supposed to burn throughout the night every night. There was only enough oil to burn for one day, yet miraculously, it burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of oil for the menorah. An eight day festival was declared to commemorate this miracle. Note that the holiday commemorates the miracle of the oil, not the military victory: Jews do not glorify war."

Finally, as someone who was once part of a Christian tradition that observed God's festivals, I always found it a bit disconcerting that Purim (Esther) and Dedication were ignored. Although they are both mentioned in the Canon of the Bible and it was evident that Christ observed both of them, they were relegated to a secondary status and labeled as Jewish. Looking back on that experience now, it underscores for me what an unsound foundation that those teachings and practices were based upon. Is it worthwhile to recall the fact that God has saved "His" people from annihilation? Is it worthwhile to remember that the true worship of the true God was restored despite overwhelming odds to the contrary? And could either one of those events foreshadow events predicted in the New Testament? What do you think?

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Is God on the side of those attempting to repeal Fayetteville Ordinance 5703?

I don't normally get so provincial with my posts, but I felt that the current situation in my hometown (Fayetteville, Arkansas) demanded some commentary. In August of this year, the city council passed an ordinance designed to protect the civil rights of its citizens who happen to belong to the LGBTQ community. Some "concerned" local citizens who were infuriated by the council's audacity in trying to protect these people gathered signatures and succeeded in having the issue placed before the public as a referendum (Isn't it nice that we can be so democratic about deciding whose civil rights are protected and whose are not). Anyway, I was driving home the other day and noticed several churches with signs supporting repeal in front of their meeting places. Although I can't say that I was surprised, it is still disappointing to see so many "Christians" supporting such intolerance and bigotry.

According to the City of Fayetteville's website (http://www.accessfayetteville.org), the ordinance is described in the following terms: "An ordinance to amend the Fayetteville Code by enacting Chapter 119 Civil Rights Administration to protect the civil rights of Fayetteville citizens and visitors and to create the position of Civil Rights Administrator for the City of Fayetteville." The objectionable portion of the ordinance seems to be its inclusion of gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation among the more traditionally accepted categories for protection like race, ethnicity, age, gender, etc.

The Family Council (https://familycouncil.org/?p=10715) listed its reasons for supporting the ordinance's repeal as: 1. The ordinance affects churches (by not allowing churches to discriminate against these people in their hiring for "secular" positions), 2. The ordinance inadvertently allows men to use women’s restrooms, locker rooms, and changing areas, 3. The ordinance affects private schools (by not specifically exempting them from its provisions), and 4. The ordinance will affect religious business owners (by not allowing them to discriminate against serving members of the LGBTQ community). The actual language of Chapter 119 spells out seven types of employment discrimination that are prohibited. Likewise, it prohibits twelve kinds of housing/real estate discrimination. Finally, the language prohibits businesses from discriminating against anyone in providing goods, services, facilities, privileges and accommodations to any of the protected groups.

It is interesting to note that there is no language within the ordinance that provides for any special accommodations relative to public restrooms, locker rooms and changing areas. In fact, the following exception is spelled out in the provisions of the ordinance: "Designating a facility as a gender-segregated space shall not be a violation of this chapter. Nothing in this chapter shall be construed as allowing any person to enter any gender-segregated space for any unlawful purpose." Likewise, a specific exemption is carved out for religious organizations: "Nothing in this chapter shall be construed to require any religious or denominational institution or association to open its tax exempt property or place of worship to any individual or group for any ceremony or meeting, except any activity or service that is supported in whole or part by public funds." Finally, any complaint filed under the ordinance is left to the Civil Rights Administrator's discretion to investigate and refer to the City Prosecutor's Office for enforcement. In other words, just because someone files a complaint under the provisions of the ordinance doesn't mean that his/her complaint will necessarily result in any action against anybody. I'll leave it to my readers to judge whether or not anyone has lied or misrepresented the truth about what the ordinance does or doesn't do.

Whatever the personal religious beliefs of my Christian friends, it seems to me that everyone should be able to agree that the exclusion and mistreatment of anyone is not consistent with the Spirit of Christ. During his earthly ministry, Jesus did not exclude, abuse or mistreat anyone (even those whom many considered to be among the worst of sinners). However, I do seem to recall that he was not afraid to make some self-righteous, hypocritical Pharisees and Sadducees uncomfortable about some of their statements and actions. In that same spirit, I would urge my Christian friends who are supportive of the repeal of this ordinance not to get too comfortable in your bigotry. You may have the numbers on your side, but I'm pretty sure you don't have the Lord on your bandwagon!

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Evolution of Judaism

In more recent times, there has been renewed interest among Christians about the Jewish roots of their religion. Many thinking Christians have begun to seriously contemplate and consider the fact that the founder of their religion was an observant Jew. Indeed, the same could be said about the overwhelming majority of the followers whom he attracted during his lifetime on this planet.

In this connection, it is interesting to note that both religions lay claim to a body of literature and traditions that neither one very much resembles. While Christians embrace the God of the Torah and the intent of its laws, most of them reject its specifications and rituals. Likewise, Jews embrace the God of the Torah and the specific application of the laws given by "Him" to Moses, but they have abandoned almost all of the sacrificial and ritualistic system outlined within it. Moreover, the whole edifice of a centralized system of worship and religion which David and Solomon erected around the Temple in Jerusalem no longer exists. Both sides acknowledge the promise of a Messiah/Mashiach in the writings which we refer to as the Old Testament, but they reach dramatically different conclusions about how that promise was to be fulfilled.

All of which brings to mind an obvious question: Which religion (if either) is the legitimate heir to that body of literature and traditions which they both lay claim to? Jews appeal to the old "I was there first" line to justify their claim. Christians, on the other hand, appeal to the person and work of Jesus Christ to stake their claim to the Old Testament.

Now it is certainly beyond dispute that the Old Testament is a largely Hebrew/Jewish document, and that the religion based on those writings began with these people. Nevertheless, it is also clear that YHWH is purported to have warned these same people over and over again that they were in danger of losing their favored status with "Him." Under the terms of the covenant (as outlined in the Torah), the Jews were promised blessings for their obedience and severe consequences/penalties for their disobedience. (see Deuteronomy 28) In similar fashion, most of the prophets who followed Moses predicted that God would remove the favored status of the Jews and allow them and their Temple to be overwhelmed and overthrown by their enemies. The prophet Ezekiel even recorded a vision of the glory of the Lord departing from the Temple. (Ezekiel 10)

We know from both Scripture and secular history that the Jewish state did cease to exist, and that the temple and Jerusalem were destroyed. Moreover, it has been pointed out in previous posts on this blog that these events had catastrophic consequences for the Jewish religion. As the sacrifices, rituals and festivals centered on the Temple and its priesthood in Jerusalem, all of these things naturally disappeared when the Temple and priesthood were decimated by the Jews' enemies. Hence, Jews would argue that their religious practices evolved out of necessity to conform to the reality of their new circumstances.

According to Judaism 101, the Jews have traditionally rejected Jesus as the fulfillment of the promised Messiah because he did not conform to their view of what that personage was supposed to be and accomplish. On this site, Tracey Rich states that Jews do not believe that Jesus was the Mashiach because he "did not do any of the things that the scriptures said the messiah would do." More precisely, the author defines these things in the following way: "The mashiach will bring about the political and spiritual redemption of the Jewish people by bringing us back to Israel and restoring Jerusalem (Isaiah 11:11-12; Jeremiah 23:8; 30:3; Hosea 3:4-5). He will establish a government in Israel that will be the center of all world government, both for Jews and gentiles (Isaiah 2:2-4; 11:10; 42:1). He will rebuild the Temple and re-establish its worship (Jeremiah 33:18). He will restore the religious court system of Israel and establish Jewish law as the law of the land (Jeremiah 33:15)."

Of course, many Christians would say that these items constitute the second phase of Christ's mission (to be accomplished after his return to this earth in power and glory). Some would say that the Jews (along with many of their fellow Christians) have fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the promised activities of the Messiah. They would argue that much of what was prophesied and taught should be interpreted as spiritual milestones that would be achieved, not as literal political and cultural events on this earth.

Getting back to our original question (Which religion is the legitimate heir to that body of literature and traditions which they both lay claim to?), it is interesting to note that there haven't been any successful attempts to rebuild the Temple or restore the Jewish religion to its former practices since the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. (less than forty years after Christ's crucifixion, death, resurrection and ascension). Why is that important to our discussion about the evolution of Judaism?

Take a moment to consider these things. Christians claim that Jesus was the fulfillment of the sacrificial system, Law and prophets. Christ himself is purported to have said that he came here to fulfill the Law and the prophets. (Matthew 5:17)

Perhaps there is no clearer statement of the Christian claim to be the rightful heirs of the God and traditions of the Old Testament than those outlined in the book of Hebrews. After describing the Temple and its rituals (Hebrews 9:1-10), we read: "When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are to come, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption. The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance - now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant." (Hebrews 10"11-15) Continuing into the next chapter, we read: "The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming - not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins." (Hebrews 10:1-4)

Think about what an interesting coincidence we have in the events of the First Century of the Common Era. The followers of Jesus of Nazareth claimed that he was the fulfillment of the Temple rituals and sacrifices and had given everyone access to the Holy of Holies (Most Holy Place or Inner Sanctuary), and the Temple was destroyed and the animal sacrifices specified by the Law ceased to be offered. Moreover, those items that were lost have never been rebuilt or restored by the Jews (or anyone else for that matter). Hmm, maybe this wasn't a coincidence after all! What do you think?

Friday, December 5, 2014

God and Capitalism: Seven scriptural principles that contradict modern American Capitalism

Many folks from the Religious Right have assumed that God and the Bible endorse the principles of modern American Capitalism. Are they right? Before you answer that question, you may want to consider the following:

1. Capitalism has been defined (in part) as the individual pursuit of economic self interest which results in what is best for society as a whole.
Paul told the saints at Corinth to take their brothers and sisters into account when enjoying the liberty that Christ had provided for them. He wrote: "Don't be concerned for your own good but for the good of others." (I Corinthians 10:24) He also wrote to the saints at Philippi: "Don't look out only for your own interest, but take an interest in others too." (Philippians 2:4)

2. One of the fundamental features of American Capitalism has been the notion that all citizens aspire to enter the wealthy class - to "keep up with the Joneses."
On Mount Sinai, God is purported to have told Moses: "You must not covet your neighbor's house. You must not covet your neighbor's wife, male or female servant, ox or donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor." (Exodus 20:17)

3. American Capitalism has always been defined by the virtually unfettered ability of its citizens to purchase and sell land at whatever price the market will allow.
Compare this practice with what is recorded in the Old Testament:
"When you make an agreement with your neighbor to buy or sell property, you must not take advantage of each other. When you buy land from your neighbor, the price you pay must be based on the number of years since the last jubilee. The seller must set the price by taking into account the number of years remaining until the next Year of Jubilee . The more years until the next jubilee, the higher the price; the fewer the years, the lower the price. After all, the person selling the land is actually selling you a certain number of harvests. Show your fear of God by not taking advantage of each other. I am the Lord your God." (Leviticus 25:14-17)
"The land must never be sold on a permanent basis, for the land belongs to me. You are only foreigners and tenant farmers working for me. With every purchase of land you must grant the seller the right to buy it back. If one of your fellow Israelites falls into poverty and is forced to sell some family land, then a close relative should buy it back for him. If there is no close relative to buy the land, but the person who sold it gets enough money to buy it back, he then has the right to redeem it from the one who bought it. The price of the land will be discounted according to the number of years until the next Year of Jubilee. In this way the original owner can then return to the land. But if the original owner cannot afford to buy back the land, it will remain with the new owner until the next Year of Jubilee. In the jubilee year, the land must be returned to the original owners so they can return to their family land." (Leviticus 25:23-28)
"Anyone who sells a house inside a walled town has the right to buy it back for a full year after its sale. During that year, the seller retains the right to buy it back. But if it is not bought back within a year, the sale of the house within the walled town cannot be reversed. It will become the permanent property of the buyer. It will not be returned to the original owner in the Year of Jubilee." (Leviticus 25:29-30)

4. For many Americans a seven-day work week is part of the reality of their lives.
Notice another one of the Big Ten in this regard: "Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the Lord your God. On that day no one in your household may do any work. This includes you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, your livestock, and any foreigners living among you." (Exodus 20:8-10)

5. Another prominent feature of modern American Capitalism is our banking system. As part of that system, the lenders of capital commonly charge interest on the loans that they make to the public and each other.
Notice that this subject is broached in both the Old and New Testaments:
"If one of your fellow Israelites falls into poverty and cannot support himself, support him as you would a foreigner or a temporary resident and allow him to live with you. Do not charge interest or make a profit at his expense. Instead, show your fear of God by letting him live with you as your relative. Remember, do not charge interest on money you lend him or make a profit on food you sell him." (Leviticus 25:35-37)
"Do not charge interest on the loans you make to a fellow Israelite, whether you loan money, or food, or anything else. You may charge interest to foreigners, but you may not charge interest to Israelites..." (Deuteronomy 23:19-20)
Christ is purported to have said: "If you love only those who love you, why should you get credit for that? Even sinners love those who love them! And if you do good only to those who do good to you, why should you get credit? Even sinners do that much! And if you lend money only to those who can repay you, why should you get credit? Even sinners will lend to other sinners for a full return. Love your enemies! Do good to them. Lend to them without expecting to be repaid." (Luke 6:32-35)

6. American capitalists have generally sought to compensate their workers at the cheapest rate possible, and these wages have traditionally been paid out on a weekly, bi-weekly or monthly basis. Hence, many workers have complained of inadequate compensation for the work that they perform for their employers and have struggled to budget that money so that it will last between paydays.
Notice that the Biblical commentary on this topic also extends to both Testaments:
"Do not defraud or rob your neighbor. Do not make your hired workers wait until the next day to receive their pay." (Leviticus 19:13)
"Never take advantage of poor and destitute laborers, whether they are fellow Israelites or foreigners living in your towns. You must pay them their wages each day before sunset because they are poor and are counting on it. If you don't, they might cry out to the Lord against you, and it would be counted against you as sin." (Deuteronomy 24:14-15)
"'At that time I will put you on trial. I am eager to witness against all sorcerers and adulterers and liars. I will speak against those who cheat employees of their wages, who oppress widows and orphans, or who deprive foreigners living among you of justice, for these people do not fear me,' says the Lord of Heaven's Armies." (Malachi 3:5)
"When people work, their wages are not a gift, but something they have earned." (Romans 4:4)
"For listen! Hear the cries of the field workers whom you have cheated of their pay. The wages you held back cry out against you. The cries of those who harvest your fields have reached the ears of the Lord of Heaven's Armies." (James 5:4)

7. Another prominent feature of American Capitalism is the often scrupulous and detailed financial planning that we engage in for the future. Business owners worry over investments, production, promotions, personnel decisions, etc. and make plans that stretch for months and years into the future. Likewise, the average citizen worries about how to finance a home and is willing to sign a mortgage that lasts anywhere from ten to thirty years into the future. Many of them begin planning for their children's college education when those children are still in diapers, and almost everyone worries about their retirement to one degree or another.
Notice something that Jesus is purported to have said in this regard:
"Don't store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be...No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life - whether you have enough food and drink, or enough clothes to wear. Isn't life more than food, and your body more than clothing? Look at the birds. They don't plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren't you far more valuable to him than they are? Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?...So don't worry about these things, saying, 'What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?' These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need. So don't worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today's trouble is enough for today." (Matthew 6:19-34)

I don't know about you, but that doesn't sound like a full-throated Biblical endorsement of American Capitalism to me!

**All Scriptural references taken from the New Living Translation**

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Can you see God in Michael Brown and Darren Wilson?

There has been a great deal of commentary and turmoil pertaining to the events surrounding the shooting of a black teenager by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri over the last several months. Some folks have suggested that Officer Darren Wilson was the instigator and aggressor in the incident, while others have insisted that young Michael Brown bears the lion's share of the responsibility for what happened that day in August.

Recently, a Grand Jury decided that Wilson should not be indicted for Michael's death. For many Blacks, this confirmed what they have believed for a long time: White police officers have been given carte blanche to harass, persecute and kill people of color. For many Whites, the decision of the Grand Jury confirmed what they had suspected all along: This hulking, black thug was culpable in his own death.

Both camps seem oblivious to the fact that two humans (same species as the rest of us) faced each other that fateful day. Two humans made, according to Scripture, in the image and likeness of Almighty God (Genesis 1:26-27, 5:1-2, 9:6). Moreover, the original Hebrew words employed in these verses imply more than just appearance. In other words, we are not only a shadow of the form and shape of the Divine. On the contrary, the Bible suggests that we have been given some of the thinking, creative and emotive abilities of Almighty God. How many of us have considered these two individuals as representations (however imperfect) of God?

I didn't know Michael Brown, and I've never met Darren Wilson; but the fact that they were both made in the image and likeness of Almighty God tells me a few things about both of them. Prior to that day in August, they both had thoughts, talents and loves. They were both like me, and they were both like God. Doesn't that modify the way that we see both of them? If not, I think it should. What do you think?

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Did they or didn't they?

Are Adam, Eve, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David and Jesus Christ historical figures? In short, did these individuals ever really exist as people? "Of course, they did!" many of my Fundamentalist friends will quickly answer. However, in recent years, several scholars have suggested that the answer to these questions is NO! (see Gavin Rumney's latest post entitled "No Mo?" at Otagosh and The New Zealand Herald article on which it is based by Andrew Brown entitled "Moses - more a myth than a man?" at http://www.nzherald.co.nz/world/news/article.cfm?c_id=2&objectid=11366715; see also the Salon/AlterNet article by Valerie Tarico entitled "5 reasons to suspect that Jesus never existed" at http://www.salon.com/2014/09/01/5_reasons_to_suspect_that_jesus_never_existed/)

According to the Gospel of John, when Christ was on trial before Pilate, the Roman governor asked the rhetorical question "What is truth?" (John 18:38) It seems to me that this might be a good question for all of us to ask ourselves in attempting to answer the question posed by this post.

We humans have a tendency to oversimplify most issues (it helps us to cope and attempt to understand things). For instance, we like to classify our literature as fiction or non-fiction. In this regard, most of us would classify historical or scientific works as being non-fiction (even though such works can, and often do, contain factual errors). Likewise, we tend to relegate novels like Moby Dick, The Grapes of Wrath and Centennial to the fiction section of our libraries.

We say that Ishmael, Captain Ahab and Moby Dick are fictional characters that never existed despite the fact that Herman Melville spent a considerable amount of time aboard two whaling ships and based his novel on the true story of the Essex (a ship that was sunk by a sperm whale in 1820 - see http://www.biography.com/people/herman-melville-9405239#moby-dick). Hence, we would do well to consider how much of both these characters and their stories are based on real people and actual events. Moreover, it is obvious that one of Melville's central themes in this novel is an examination of man's struggle with nature. Thus, we could also ask ourselves: How much truth is there in his musings on that topic?

We can make similar observations about the other two novels mentioned above. We could dismiss the Joad family and their hardships as fictitious; but we would do well to ask ourselves the question: How many American families experienced the same kinds of trials and tribulations during the actual events of the Dust Bowl years? Also, is it possible that Steinbeck captures some profound truths about man's inhumanity to man, the value of family and the way that our actions can impact others in this work of fiction? Likewise, although Michener's Centennial, Colorado was a fictional place, many of the events depicted in the book by the same name reflect actual historical events related to the territories of the Western United States. We also know that there were many people like Pasquinel, McKeag and Clay Basket in the real-life stories about the settlement of these areas. Is it possible that James Michener captured some of the truth about the interconnectedness of the human story and our shared history in the pages of his novel?

While it is easy for most of us to acknowledge that these works of "fiction" can contain profound truths, many of us seem unable or unwilling to do the same for the Bible. Think about it. How does it detract from our appreciation of the Bible to acknowledge that the characters of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob may be based on different aspects of a single individual or the unrelated progenitors of different tribes of people? Does it negate the Bible to acknowledge that the "person" of Moses is most likely an amalgamation of several different actual people? Do we dismiss the story of the Exodus from Egypt because it is probably based on the memory of a time when the hill country of the Levant was dominated by the Egyptians? Is the folk memory of that time as a period of slavery truly inaccurate? Is it possible that an Egyptian (maybe even someone named Moses) played some role in leading the people who became Israel through the period of turmoil and transition after the Egyptians withdrew from the Levant? And doesn't Christ's repeated references to Moses offer some validation to the Jewish conception of the man? (And I'm not necessarily saying that Christ endorsed the historical existence of a single individual named Moses in making this point.)

I have also discussed the importance of perspective before on this blog. How does this relate to the "truth" of the Bible? Please allow me to use an episode from my own family's story as an illustration. My grandmother and her siblings viewed her father as an adulterous, self-centered man who abandoned his family (he did have an extra-marital affair and my great grandmother did divorce him and move the family away from their former home because of it). However, the children from her father's second marriage viewed that marriage as the product of two people who loved each other very much fighting against extraordinary odds to be together (my great grandmother could be a difficult person to live with, and my great grandfather's second wife was trapped in an abusive marriage to a much older man at the time of her affair with him). Which version of our family's story is true? I would say that both stories have the ring of truth about them - depending on the perspective of the person telling the story. In short, what we see as false or unimportant is often regarded as vital truth by another.

Nevertheless, it does seem to me that the question of Christ's existence demands a stricter standard for Christians than some of the other elements of the Biblical narrative. He is, after all, purported to be the founder and standard of the religion that bears his name.

However, when I consider the "reasons to suspect" that he never existed, this writer is thoroughly unimpressed by this line of scholarship. For instance, it does not seem conclusive to me that there is little corroborative evidence of Christ's existence from contemporary First Century historical accounts. If we take the New Testament narrative about Jesus at face value, we would have to conclude that he was regarded by the Roman and Jewish elite of that day as an obscure, unimportant, heretical Jew who espoused dangerous ideas that could have led to serious unrest within the province. In fact, the setting of the Jesus narrative does seem to confirm much of what we know of the religious, political and cultural situation of the time from those contemporary sources available to us.

It is also not surprising that the details of Christ's life would be largely unfamiliar to his followers (they weren't in the habit of publishing too many biographies or autobiographies at that time). Likewise, under all of these conditions, it is easy for me to understand that the events of his life would not have been recorded until after he had gained some fame and a wider following (which the Gospel accounts make clear that he did not enjoy during his lifetime). The desire for these details would have been natural, and it would also have been very natural for the leading men in the community to gather the stories that had been handed down orally by their predecessors to satisfy that interest. Moreover, the documentary evidence suggests that the gospel accounts were probably based on earlier writings (which many scholars concede may have been penned by eye witnesses).

Although the Gospel accounts display a remarkable degree of harmony, it is foolish to deny that there are some glaring contradictions present within them. For me, however, the presence of these contradictions suggest real memories and different perspectives of actual events and people.

Finally, the fact that modern scholars portray the "real" Jesus as "wildly different persons" is not surprising. Important figures of more recent times have been portrayed in very different ways (e.g. Jefferson, Lincoln, Patton, Roosevelt, Nixon) by a variety of scholars. Indeed, all of the prominent figures of history have evoked a great deal of debate over their motives, feelings and "true" natures. Hence, it is not surprising to me that the founder of one of the world's great religions would be portrayed in a variety of ways.

Nevertheless, for Christians, the historical existence of a person named Jesus or Moses can never occupy the central place in our belief systems. In the end, religious beliefs are a matter of faith - the acceptance of things that cannot be felt, seen, heard, tasted or smelled. I believe in Jesus Christ because I have found forgiveness and comfort in his religion, and because many of my prayers in his name have been answered to my satisfaction. I understand that this does not constitute historical proof of his existence, but it is enough for me. Moreover, I do not find the central arguments of those who would dismiss him as myth very plausible or convincing. What do you think?